Death Penalty

Not Even COVID-19 Infections Among Prison Staff Can Convince the Feds To Halt Executions

Five who tested positive recently will participate in this week’s planned executions of Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeois.


On November 19, the federal government executed Orlando Hall, the eighth man to be put to death in 2020 by the Department of Justice (DOJ) under President Donald Trump.

The Bureau of Prisons reported that eight staff members who participated in Hall's executions have subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, as did Hall's spiritual adviser. Nevertheless, the Associated Press reports that five of those prison staff members are planning to take part in two more executions scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

An attorney for the DOJ is defending the decision, telling a judge Tuesday that they should be allowed to move forward anyway because they're following proper protocols. Attorney Jordan Von Bokern went so far as to argue that there's no evidence that the guards were infected at the execution and might have gotten infected anywhere.

Such an argument misses the point entirely and shows how recklessly the DOJ is using its last days under Trump to execute as many death row prisoners as they possibly can before Trump's presidency ends. President-elect Joe Biden opposes the use of the death penalty. Attorney General William Barr told the A.P. that he's hoping to somehow schedule even more executions in his final days as attorney general.

There's a spike of infections at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where these executions are taking place. One inmate there, James Lee Wheeler, 78, died on Monday after becoming infected. He was serving a life sentence for drug trafficking–related crimes. The prison reports 300 active cases of COVID-19 among both prisoners and staff.

Gathering a bunch of people together for the purpose of a completely unnecessary event like an execution exacerbates the risk of spread. The Associated Press notes that each execution brings about 100 people into the complex. During the entire pandemic, America's prisons have been significant vectors of spread into nearby communities. There have been more than 225,000 infections of prisoners across the United States—26,000 of them federal inmates. There have been more than 1,500 deaths of prisoners, 157 in federal prisons. On top of that, there have been at least 56,000 infections among prison staff and more than 100 deaths.

On Thursday, if the Justice Department continues on this road, it will execute Brandon Bernard. In 1999 at the age of 18, Bernard participated in the robbery and carjacking of a couple in Killeen, Texas, that ended with the young men killing the couple. It happened on military property, and so resulted in federal prosecution. Three of the five young men involved were minors and were sentenced to prison. But Bernard and the other adult, Christopher Vialva (who was 19 at the time) were both sentenced to death. Vialva was executed in September.

Years later, five of the jurors have expressed doubts about putting Bernard to death and have come forward to plead for his life, as has a former prosecutor who helped try the case and a former warden at the prison. E. Tammy Kim of The New Yorker notes that thousands of people have sent letters to the White House on Bernard's behalf asking for his sentence to be commuted. On Tuesday, Kim tweeted that a government source told her that the Office of the Pardon Attorney actually recommended that the Justice Department commute his sentence to life in prison and the Justice Department agreed with this recommendation in its report to the White House.

On Wednesday, a judge denied a request to halt Bernard's execution. But, The Daily Beast notes, that Kim Kardashian West is one of the many people attempting to lobby Trump on Bernard's behalf. (Kardashian West's participation helped get Alice Marie Johnson freed in 2018.) But time is running out for both Bernard and Bourgeois, who is scheduled to be executed Friday for abusing and killing his 2-year-old daughter in 2002.